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King Jayavarman IV ‘founded by his own power, a city which was the seat of the prosperities of the universe’. – From an inscription in Lawrence Briggs’  The ancient Khmer emplire, reprint, Bankok, White Lotus, 1999

Koh-KerLocation: Approximately 3-4 hours from Siem Reap by Road. Take Route #6 east to Damdek, turn north, proceed to the sign marking the road to Koh Ker. Ask your local guide for road conditions, but the orad is paved or hardpack and in good condition most of the year. Often combined with a visit to Beng Melea.

Access: Enter the Koh Ker complex by road from the south. The temple is oriented to the east
Date: first half of the 10th century
King: Jayavarman IV (reigned 928-941)
Religion: Hindu (Dedicated to Shiva)
Art style: Koh Ker

BACKGROUND

Some five year before he became king, the future Jayavarman IV, whose uncle reigned at Yashodharapura, the capital of Angkor, left the area and settled in Chok Gargyar (‘Island of Glory’), the present-day site known as Koh Ker, northeast of Angkor, and called Lingapura in inscriptions. Despite the meaning of the early name. Koh Ker is certainly not an island. It is located inland in a remote part of Cambodia east of the southern tip of Phnom Kulen, which, today, is one of the poorest regions of the country. Whether or not Jayavarman IV was a usurper is uncertain, but he divided the kingdom by establishing a new capital in the remote location of Koh Ker. To accomplish this, he must have wielded considerable power as a military leader. Inscriptions state that he ruled over the territories of Battabang, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham and Ta Kev. He died at Koh Ker around 941. His son, Harshavarman II, who succeeded him, reigned briefly until 944. The cause of his death at a young age is uncertain. His successor moved the capital from Koh Ker back to Angkor.

Jayavarman IV’s ‘royal ceremonial complex’ of Koh Ker was built on a grand scale and some of the largest and most extraordinary sculpture was created by the Khmers was made during this period. Koh Ker images are renowned, not only for their colossal size and powerful in Khmer sculpture. Two enormous Koh Ker sculptures in the National Museum in Phnom Penh represent this period admirably (both are caved from a single piece of stone): an image of Garuda, the king of birds and mythical mount of the Hindu god, Vishnu, standing inside the entrance of the museum, and two monkeys Sugriva and Bali, engaged in a fierce fight enacting an episode from the Ramayana.

LAYOUT

The capital of Koh Ker occupied a rectangular area of approximately five by seven kilometres (3.10 x 4.34 miles), of which all are not accessible. The monuments of Koh Ker can be divided into three groups by their location: (1) the Prasat Thom complex with a baray; (2) the northern group and (3) the southern group. The structures in all three groups were built primarily of brick with the increasing use of laterite and sandstone.

Group 1: a long, processional wat (length:182 metres; 600 feet) at the east flanked by so-called ‘palaces’ marks the entrance to the Prasat Thom complex (this eastern entrance is difficult to get to presently). Each so –called ‘palace’ is an unusual configuration of four rectangular galleries, each divided into three rooms. The galleries, which have angular roofs, square columns and windows with balusters, form a rectangle around a small courtyard. Another odd feature of the ‘palace’ is that they are not symmetrical. The galleries at the east have porches facing each other, whereas the ones at the south have porches at both end; and those on the north and west have no porches. The function of the ‘palaces’ is unknown. Perhaps they were accommodations for honoured guests or maybe the king used them for religious retreats.

After the ‘palace’ and going westward, you come to a large cruciform gopura with two galleries; close by, two long, rectangular buildings parallel the gpura followed by two small shrines; then your come to the rectangular, laterite enclosure wall, marked at the east by an imposing brick building, Prasat Kraham. Next, two balustrades with combined naga and garuda motifs line the reservoir. The avenue along the dyke is lined with two rows of porticoes. Two successive enclosure walls (one of laterite and one of sandstone), each with cruciform gopuras at the east and west, follow. A continuous row of long, laterite buildings with porticoes and windows with balusters stand between the two enclosure walls.

Central area: you have reached the central area; there are ‘libraries’ on the east and west sides; going west, you come to a terrace with nine brick shrines of unequal size and placement but roughly aligned in two rows east to west (five in the from row and four in the back) and the central sanctuary. A pavilion and a portico precede the central shrine, giving it a rectangular shape. Twelve small towers are arranged in clusters of three on ground level around the terrace. In total, there were originally 21 shrines in the central area.

Continuing west, you leave the central area by passing through a gpura of the enclosure wall that connects to yet another gopura of a second enclosure wall. Then you cross a reservoir with a naga and garuda balustrade and you will see the spectacular seven-tiered pyramid of Prasat Thom straight ahead. It is located outside the inner enclosure at the western end of a rectangular outer enclosure wall. Oriented to the east, the base is 55 metres (180 feet) square. The pyramid has only one access located at the east. At its apex, according to inscription, a linga was ‘raised to the height of 35 metres [114 feet][including the pyramid] as an unparalleled wonder.’ Henri Parmentier, a French archaeologist, estimated that the linga was 4.6 metres (15 feet) high and weighed 24 tonnes. The undecorated tires of the pyramid forced the eye up to its apex, which once housed the extraordinary linga.

Tip: Access up the pyramid is a steep climb by a wooden ladder with a railing but the ladder does not extend to the top; the remainder of the climb is on narrow, unevenly spaced stones. The top level of the pyramid is small but reaching it rewards the climber with panoramic views of the surrounding area and the chance to see remains of what must have been gigantic lions supporting the base for the linga mentioned in the inscriptions.

A baray called the ‘Rahal’ located to the south and slightly east of the outer enclosure wall. The enormous baray (1,188 x 3,900 metres; 3,900 x 1,800 feet) may have provided a supply of water for irrigation.

The northern group: a row of square sandstone towers are located northeast of the baray and aligned north to south, paralleling the Stun Sen River. At least three of these sanctuaries are easily accessible today by a pleasantly shaded path through the jungle; each sanctuary contains a large linga (average height: 2.35 metres; 7.70 feet) that symbolizes the union of the three divinities of the Hindu trinity: Brahma by the square base, Visnu by the octagonal mid-section and Shiva by the hemispherical top. The lingas are set in majestic, terraced sandstone pedestals with detailed carving and moulding.

The southern group: a royal highway ran from the northwest corner of the Rahal, south to Beng Mealea and west to Angkor. Square brick sanctuaries (either single or in groups of three) were situated on both sides of this road. They are however, at present, inaccessible.
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